The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir” refers to an actual site about thirty-five miles north of Missoula, where Richard Hugo taught at the University of Montana for the last eighteen years of his life. The poem, however, is not based on an actual drowning.

The fifty-six lines of the poem are divided into seven eight-line stanzas. The first-person speaker begins with a startlingly blunt line, mostly in monosyllables, in which he asserts that his hands, which once moved across the woman’s body as the hands of a lover, have been replaced by the green algae and grasses of the lake. Instead of his ten fingers toying with her hair, ten bass “tease” it, as if they were macabre hair stylists. The poem is not a lament for his lost love, for the speaker says that he hopes to find her in the spring still tangled in the lily pads, stars reflected from her teeth.

In the second stanza, the speaker gloats in observing that while most lakes are dim a few feet down, this one is dark from the mountain range around it. He associates the woman’s death with the songs of dying Indians, and he suggests that when her hands wave in the wind, they wave to the ocean, which he associates with their lost romance. In the following stanza he expands on the seashore, where they made love and where whales “fall in love with gulls.” The “Dolly skeletons” of line 18 refer to Dolly Varden trout, whose watery death parallels the imagined death of the “lady” in the title. The...

(The entire section is 608 words.)